I was recently lucky enough to participate in the Early Career Researcher (ECR) Development Day expertly organised by ECRs from the Centre and the respective Schools of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences at The University of Queensland. I was there to provide some perspective on non-academic career opportunities and had the opportunity to listen to some other sessions on academic pathways. I was struck by the potential differences in what might be valued when competing for positions in academic and non-academic pathways. Most University researchers are aware that considerable importance is placed on publications, presentations, grants, patents and awards, as well as a peer-reviewed assessment of the novelty and importance of one’s thinking and research plans. In many instances, fellowships and grants are allocated solely on written applications with no interview or personal interaction with the funding body. Sadly, discussions at the Development Day suggested that ECRs may need to be selfish to ensure that distractions do not reduce the quality and quantity of the key science outputs needed to capture the next-step academic career opportunities. For many reasons, the University work environment is highly attractive, but statistically, we know that many ECRs will successfully build rewarding careers in non-academic organisations.
Organisations in the non-academic career pathway usually have a different culture to that of a University. In CSIRO where I spent most of my career, research priorities are set through an over-arching organisational strategy and staff need to align with the broad organisational directives. Internal and external investment and people are allocated to cross-organisational ventures such as impact-focused missions and cutting-edge capability platforms. Examples relevant to the Centre would be the Future Protein Mission and the Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Future Science Platform. Multi-disciplinary and geographically dispersed teams are established within these ventures to achieve the agreed goals. This type of strategy-driven, impact-focused, and complex multi-team approach is also typical of many private companies and government departments. This is not to say that novel thinking is not encouraged and valued, but it will need to be relevant to the organisational strategy. Importantly, organisational research ventures will also have set lifetimes and will most likely eventually be either closed, changed or absorbed into an implementation phase that will have minimal or different new science needs. Consequently, technical staff need then to adapt to a revised set of strategic goals.
New recruits entering this type of system need to be highly flexible and able to adapt their work to the needs of the organisation and its teams. It is the team and selflessness, not the individual, that rules in this system. Commercial and government organisations are very interested in what you bring as a whole person and not just your academic qualifications. Getting an interview will mean that your written formal qualifications are viewed as meeting the technical needs of the organisation. The interview will all be about your ability to fit in, your flexibility, ability to engage with others, and how you will continue to develop. Here are a few tips on what to emphasise in addition to your academic qualifications:
- Knowledge of, and curiosity about, the target organisation’s strategy and why it attracts you;
- What you have contributed to teams you have worked in, using a ‘we not me’ approach;
- How you have helped others, e.g. teaching, corporate activities, external volunteering;
- Examples of flexibility in your career and personal life;
- Examples of ongoing personal development.
Fortunately, the Centre provides many opportunities for ECRs to obtain experiences that can be used to illustrate these attributes and an over-arching supportive strategic framework which ECRs work within. I would encourage ECRs to take advantage of this unique period in your career to not only develop your academic credentials but your whole person.
Dr John Manners
Chair, Centre Advisory Committee
Honorary Fellow, CSIRO
Adjunct Professor, The University of Queensland